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Our Lady of the Forest Shrine

Our Lady of the Forest Shrine

Q: Is there a shrine called Our Lady of the Forest?

A: Saint James at Sag Bridge parish in Illinois has a Marian shrine that was was built in 1998 for the 165th anniversary of the parish. The shrine was blessed by Francis Cardinal George under the title, "Our Lady of the Forest."

Brief Historical Sketch

Britanny is a land noted for its pilgrimages, and that of Folgoet is one of the chief of them. In 1419 a church took the place of a small chapel of Our Lady in the forest of Lesneven, and it became the center of a big ecclesiastical establishment, with a pilgrim-shrine.

In 1380 there lived near Lesneven, a good old man named Salaun or Soloman. He had no one to care for him, lived alone, and did not associate with any person; he walked with his eyes on the ground, but his heart, in Heaven. Old and crippled as he was, he might be seen every evening hobbling toward the chapel of the Blessed Virgin where he spent most of the night in prayer, after the villagers had returned to their homes. He was of the woods, and here where the chapel was built, he slept under an oak near a fountain. He begged for bread, and was often laughed at, jeered at and mistreated by the small boys.

One day when the villagers were on their way to the chapel, they found the old man in the snow, dying of exposure. They tried to help him, but with the words" Ave Maria" on his lips, he went to his Queen in Heaven. Legend further relates that he was buried in an out-of-the-way place, since he had no family to mourn him. When spring came, a snow-white lily rose from the outcast's grave, and on the petals in letters of gold were the words, " Ave Maria! "

After a chequered history, the shrine fell into decay and was destroyed by fire during the Revolution. It was restored by the people in 1818 and the venerated image of Our Lady was brought back and crowned in 1888. The pilgrimage has grown in popularity ever since.

Saint James at Sag Bridge parish was founded in 1833 as a "mission." (Archeologists have determined that Saint James was not the first man-made structure on the "Sag-bluff." They claim the location was the site of a French 1600's. Father Jacques Marquette might have offered Mass at a signal post in the late 1675.) A church existed on the bluff in 1673. Twenty years later a church and/or additional building situated on the grounds of St. James Cemetery is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. St. James is the oldest parish in northern Illinois still functioning at its original location.

Our beautiful and quaint stone church building is one of the oldest church structures in the entire State of Illinois. The stone is from a local quarry. Two other Chicago landmark buildings also used stone from the Lemont-Sag quarries: the famous Chicago Water Tower and Holy Name Cathedral. Three buildings make up our parish structure. The first is our unique and beautiful church; the second, the rectory built with the same stone in 1940; the third, Saginaw Hall built in 1912 and remodeled in 1970. The large main gates, fabricated in 1905 for Western Electric in Cicero, were installed at the entryway in 1980.

In 1998 a masterpiece shrine, encompassing the "Our Lady of the Forest" grotto and Our "Memorial Pathway to Mary," was dedicated, having been built in the tradition of old by the parishioners themselves, making the St. James complex even more unique, more inviting, more inspirational. At the same time, the magnificently restored and totally renovated church was rededicated by Cardinal George, rounding out the thorough upgrading already done on Saginaw Hall and the rectory. The church, in the middle of a cemetery, on a high hill, with a nineteenth-century atmosphere and rustic isolation, is surrounded on all sides by forest preserves - a magnificent place for beauty, prayer; meditation and resting in peace. It is, truly, the jewel of the area and the Archdiocese!

Our grotto here at St James will have its feast celebrated on May 3 yearly for that is the day on which it was dedicated in honor of Mary and to the glory of God who permitted St. James to exist to such splendor in 167 years. This new era began just as the parish began through the sweat and labor of parishioners who completed the shrine (includes the grotto and our "Memorial Pathway to Mary") in less than two months of dedicated men' s and women' s best efforts. At a time others are downgrading shrines, we here have gone back to history through our great devotion to Mary and, as of old, incorporated this devotion into our landmark complex. Good people then, better people now. Our loved ones, deceased and/or living, are remembered eternally in our "memorial pathway to Mary," having names or intentions etched into the various sized bricks. The tradition of doing it ourselves at St. James lives on. Our Lady of the Forest, Pray for us. We hope to get a medal and/or prayer card made up soon.

Contribution by, John Wilkinson

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